P. Sainath

The Baba Ramdev non-debate has done much all-round damage. Perhaps most of all to media credibility.

THE NON-DEBATE on what has been labelled as the Baba Ramdev-Brinda Karat 'spat' tells us little about yoga, Ayurveda or the Left. It tells us a lot about the media, though. And much more about the huge clout with politics - and the press - of babas, godmen, tantriks, and other assorted healers. A month into the 'spat,' reports on it still find their way into major dailies. This could have something to do with the many costly advertisements for the Baba's Mumbai show that kicked off on Republic Day.

"Baba Ramdev all set to parade glamour brigade," says a headline in a daily that ran most of those ads. Ramdev's prowess at yoga was never in question. Nor is his celebrity status. Yet a lot of the 'debate' in the media revolves round a defence of his skills. Perhaps because the real issues are dicier and cut too close to the media bone.

It has not been two months since Narendra Maharaj's followers caused chaos at airports. This happened when their leader was not allowed to carry his staff on board an aircraft. His disciples ran riot. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena dived without delay into a defence of Hinduism. Many rupees of damage later, the event went off the pages. The irony of the Maharaj then seeking the help of the National Human Rights Commission was mostly lost on the media. And fear was only one element in this response.

There is a long tradition of media bosses patronising godmen, tantriks, mystics and the rest of that spectrum. Many consult godmen gurus on every single action they contemplate. Often with disastrous results. But then you just rationalise it or find another lodestar. A head of a major publishing house here patronises not one but multiple godmen. A couple have emerged as household names across the middle class India as a result. Whole columns exist for their kind of discourse. And for them, the line between advertising and editorial gets truly divine. God knows no boundaries.

Quite a few papers and television channels killed a story that should have entranced their audiences just after the tsunami. One of those favoured gurus went to tend thousands of distressed souls in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. As his cavalcade of countless cars neared the spot, someone, possibly an evil rationalist, set off a wicked rumour. A second tsunami was about to strike. As one writer put it, the godman made a quick assessment of his own powers versus those of the cosmos. Finding these a total mismatch, he turned his car around to hightail it to safety. The result of the entire caravan doing the same in panic caused the biggest traffic jam seen on that stretch of the highway. The story did appear. But only a couple of papers from the 'national press' gave it any (very minor) space. Many powerful editors and newspaper owners proudly count themselves amongst his flock.

And then there are the astrologers. An enduring entity in their own right. At the Mumbai weekly I once worked for, we had an astrologer far more into strong spirits than spirituality. His deep communion with the former often left us without his column at deadline time. Many in the weekly cheerfully wrote it for him, making the wildest, most improbable predictions. Some of these came true - adding lustre and legend to his name. Our satisfaction at this service rendered to our readers dimmed a bit when our rival weekly disclosed its own ruse. "Our astrologer has been dead four years," its editor told us. "We just re-run his old columns. And we get letters of profuse thanks, with Rs. 100 notes enclosed, from readers."

Meanwhile, our own astro, whose fame had spread overseas, landed a post at an NRI temple in the United States. It didn't come off though. The spirit was swilling within him and the flesh was weak. However, the overseas link is another reason to cherish them. One which sits well with an export-led growth strategy. Since Rajneesh in the 1980s, godmen and tantriks have been our cutting-edge exports.

Television has thrown up a powerful new avenue for those in the larger industry. The religious channels are most striking - but mainly for an absence of God. It's more the godman who is projected. God clocks in a poor second or even third (there are brands that take precedence over Him). Commerce and spirituality of this sort always underwrite each other.

But while televangelism is new to India, godman clout is not. Chandraswami peddled political influence on a massive scale. Yet he was rarely subject to public scrutiny in the early days. Matters reached a desperate stage before scrutiny began. Then too, a major daily called him just a 'yoga teacher.' It was a while before the media saw he was into something more tangled than the asanas.

One enterprise, perhaps the most massive unit of the spiritual industry, has seen a shootout killing five persons within its ashram. The police acted firmly - to play it down. At the top of this order is a godman, who counts ex-Presidents and Prime Ministers amongst his disciples. The cabal running his trust boasts top-level IAS officers (retired but active). It has former Directors-General of Police too. Rather ugly charges have been brought in foreign courts against their leader. But media scrutiny of it all is very weak.

Rural India has a dual mode on godmen and quacks. They are revered in the village and hopes of miracle cures are pinned on their power. Should those powers short-circuit, however, retribution is swift. Punishment for failure can be very painful. Many failed tantriks have been lucky to leave a village alive. Urban India, on the other hand, seems far more tolerant. You can get away with almost anything.

Dramatic changes in lifestyle send evermore swimmers to the spiritual seas. Outposts of wealth amid deserts of despair also seem to lead many to seek salvation of the kind you can pay for. Or, at least, of the kind you can feel really good about without making serious changes in your lifestyle. Meetings featuring the Dalai Lama are often notable for the number of swank vehicles crowding the venue. BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and the like. (Gautama, on the other hand, left the palace and the wealthy to be with the masses.)

In the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, the power of the sants and other godmen was crucial to the success of the nastiest political forces to have ruled this republic. In more recent times, though, attempts to pull out a religious shield for matters legal or political haven't always worked. The call for a 'nationwide' battle after the arrest of the Kanchi Sankaracharya fell flat. The byelection that followed in that constituency (Kancheepuram) saw his alleged persecutors score a huge victory.

Celebrity-driven media

In the Ramdev episode, a celebrity-driven media opted for what they do best. Cast it as a Baba versus Brinda Karat personality clash. That set a framework from which reporting of the issue found hard to emerge. Add to this, a willingness to merge professional, social, legal and political issues with the realm of the religious. This meant there was no question of scrutiny by a diligent media.

The issue of 113 poor workers thrown out of the pharmacy controlled by Ramdev's Trust and facing false cases did get a mention or two. But mostly it was swept aside. The workers are not of the class that makes news. And how do their rights matter, anyway? Sections of the media even claimed that the Union Health Ministry had not confirmed the presence of animal and human DNA in those medicines sent for testing. Quite untrue. Such DNA was found in the medicines and the Health Minister's statement confirmed it.

The tack then shifted to saying it was just a case of 'mislabelling.' That too did not wash. As always there were exceptions. As when a couple of channels interviewed old associates of Ramdev, who echoed the workers' charges about the medicines and the trust. But for the most part, the media's delight in having a stick to beat the Left with held sway. Was this not proof of its anti-Indian culture stance? Its hatred of indigenous medical systems, for instance?

Never mind that most yoga teachers do not push medication of any kind. Or that most of them reject the idea of teaching that science via television. Never mind too, that one part of the country where Ayurveda (and other systems) flourishes is Kerala. There, countless leftists engage with, preserve and promote these systems. Left-led rationalist movements have demolished quacks and charlatans. Which in turn has helped to protect the integrity of such indigenous systems. Hence the higher standards they are held in by the public there.

The Ramdev non-debate has done much damage. Perhaps most of all to media credibility. To that should-be-relentless craft we call reporting. If they must do celebrity-godmen stories, the media might want to start from within. A look at the links and practices of some of the leaders of the industry might still be shallow. But it could prove endlessly entertaining.